A Wake-Up Curtain Call

Dougherty's South Florida finale

By necessity playwrights such as Cruz and Carmen Pelaez (whose work Rum & Coke, a phenomenal hit for Area Stage in 1998, dissected Cuban-American life in Miami) make their homes in New York, the nexus of the theater world in the United States. What's tragic, however, is that the most provocative theater about South Florida in the last decade was created by outsiders. Not people who left here to live in Manhattan but people who have no connection to the area whatsoever.

I'm thinking of Drummin', the 1997 piece commissioned by the Miami Light Project and Miami-Dade Community College but created by New York-based composer Tania Leon and New York choreographer BeBe Miller. It chronicles the history of Miami and the ways its many immigrants forged the city it is today and remains one of the few theater pieces that has ever attempted to explain or dissect or comment on South Florida.

The other work of Zeitgeist that comes to mind is Radio Mambo, the brilliant, self-titled 1994 work by the Los Angeles group, who wove a spellbinding theater piece from oral histories of familiar and obscure Miami characters. As a newcomer, I used this work to help navigate the strange place where I had landed and still find it to be an emotional and psychological touchstone nearly six years later. The truths that Radio Mambo stirred up and the stories it told are vital ones, hardly secrets to native South Floridians. Why leave it to outsiders to write our legacy?

I often didn't know what to make of this contradiction, just as I couldn't understand how a community of South Florida's size, much less one that is perched in the middle of the international cultural radar screen, could allow premier artists such as Lily Tomlin and Mark Morris to pass through without delivering more than one night's worth of audience. Or why the local theaters that seem so afraid of offending their subscribers can't capture the attention of the huge audiences who did turn out for Robert Wilson and Philip Glass last spring or Bill T. Jones a few years back. Or why the most accessible theater -- from local gems such as the M Ensemble to the international array of performers brought here last year by Miami-Dade Office of Cultural Affairs for the "Inroads: The Americas" festival -- often has the smallest audiences.

I blame everything from a dearth of funding to a lack of effective marketing. (Better information about innovative groups from the daily papers' critics wouldn't hurt, either.) Cultural gaps, language gaps, and audience inertia are also partly at fault. As is South Florida's geographic isolation from the rest of the United States, which has historically hampered visits by innovative theater groups and performers that might stimulate theatergoing. (Ever see Karen Finley perform here? How about a Peter Sellars opera?) If young people are exposed only to warmed-over David Mamet, obscure Tennessee Williams, and overhyped Broadway shows, why should they be enthusiastic about other, more exciting forms of theater? How would they even know these things exist?

When theaters and audiences fail to connect, both parties lose. When I first came here five years ago, a Miami Herald editor told me that I'd probably go see fewer movies, spend less time in the theater, and read fewer books than I had in New England, all because the weather is so alluring in South Florida. As anyone who lives a life of the mind knows, that's a ridiculous presumption. I'm just as thirsty for cultural stimulation as I was when I lived in the cold, dark Northeast -- and so are the many people I encounter each week in the theater aisles and at dinner parties. Note to artistic directors: Your audience is out there. Go find it.

As for you audiences, take some initiative. Discover the small but growing amount of provocative theater that does exist here. A good place to start is at the International Hispanic Theatre Festival, helmed each year by Mario Ernesto Sanchez. It is one of South Florida's cultural highlights, featuring cutting-edge artists from all over the Spanish-speaking universe. Or Summer Shorts, City Theatre's annual festival of one-acts by national and local playwrights. Or by supporting the Miami Light Project, which brings in up-to-the-minute new works by performers from around the globe. Buy a subscription to GableStage or to the Caldwell. Just don't sit there passively. Demand more. Don't settle for less.

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